PICTURED: Eric Johnson comes to the Ventura Theater on Jan. 19. Photo by Max Crace
by Dave Gil de Rubio and Alan Sculley for Last Word Features
For Eric Johnson, it didn’t take long for him to see how fickle life in the music business can be.
Coming off an acclaimed debut, Tones, Johnson earned considerable notice among guitar fans for his playing prowess and ability to craft compelling instrumental rock compositions.
He went into his sophomore effort, Ah Via Musicom (1990), wanting to earn his stripes again, having moved from Warner Brothers to Capitol Records.
“Things were going pretty good because we’d put Tones out on Warner Brothers, but they weren’t sure if they wanted to pursue another record and decided that we should go somewhere else,” Johnson recalls. “So I worked super-hard [on Ah Via Musicom] and I would just do it over and over until I felt I was playing it well enough. That record was a lot of hard work to get it to be the way it was. I think when you have a responsibility or pressure to be the best at what you do or if you’re supposed to be good at this certain thing, the question is how do you interpret that? If I interpret that as having to go into the studio and record one note at a time and make it absolutely perfect, that might not be the most [ideal] way to handle those types, kinds of expectations. And I think at the time, that’s how I was interpreting [what people expected].”
With “Cliffs of Dover” becoming the guitarist’s signature instrumental and a hit single, as well as winning a GRAMMY for Best Rock Instrumental, Ah Via Musicom topped a million units sold, while spawning two additional hit singles, “Trademark” and “Righteous.”
While the success of Ah Via Musicom gave him more leeway with Capitol Records higher-ups, Johnson’s perfectionist tendencies found him again going over budget with the follow-up, Venus Isle (1996), which led to his getting dropped by the label after the album failed to match the commercial success of its predecessor.
That didn’t curtail Johnson’s career, though. He has gone on to release four more studio albums: Souvenir (2002), Bloom (2005), Up Close (2010) and Eclectic (2014) on various independent labels.
In addition to his own work, he’s performed Joe Satriani’s G3 guitar player’s tour and gigged with the ad-hoc group Alien Love Child.
Today, Johnson looks back at his crossover success and subsequent issues with his record labels as a learning experience.
“I don’t have any kind of bitter attitude about record labels or that music scene. But I think it’s really important to look at it honestly,” he says. “Yes, it can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it is what it is. But it’s temporal. One minute, you’ve got the red carpet and the next minute, you’ve got the locked door. It really depends on how in vogue you are. Now, I think the better way to interpret expectations is to try to be a little deeper or a little more soulful. It’s a process of unlearning a lot of stuff you learned that may not have been necessary to pack on your back and carry around.”
Originally inspired to play music by a guitar-playing family friend who came over to the house and played some numbers by bluesmen Elmore James and Jimmy Reed, Johnson started woodshedding when he was 11. Over the next decade, his skills grew as he put in time with local fusion group The Electromagnets before going solo and earning his own cult following. He also wound up being a session guitarist for a number of higher profile artists, including Christopher Cross, Cat Stevens and Carole King, which gave him creative insights to which he might not have otherwise been exposed.
“It was really cool to be around songsmiths like that and to see how important a song was to them. That was what it was about. It was a really good learning experience for me to see that,” he explains.
Another key influence was the late Jimi Hendrix, and Johnson has joined other top-flight guitarists on multiple editions of the Experience Hendrix tour, which pays tribute to the late guitarist.
While many guitarists are awed by Hendrix’s guitar playing, Johnson says when he first heard the Hendrix debut album, Are You Experienced, just before it arrived in stores, he was struck more by the songwriting and how the guitar playing served the songs themselves.
“That’s not to say I wasn’t impressed by his awesome playing and musicianship,” Johnson says. “But I think more importantly I was inspired by him because he had this message and direction of wanting to create music that spoke to people. And playing great guitar stuff was just part of it.”
To start the new year, he’s doing a solo tour billed as “Classics: Present and Past,” which figures to find Johnson playing fan-favorite selections from across his career. There’s also new music on the horizon, as he is readying a new studio album. The guitarist says it features all original material save for a cover of a Beatles song, but will be a departure from his usual plugged-in sound.
“It started off as an acoustic guitar and an acoustic piano record and still is,” Johnson says of his most recent album. “But a lot of it, I ended up putting bass and drums [on it] and overdubbing electric guitar. So it’s kind of a mishmash of an acoustic record and an electric record.”
Knowing it was going to be a largely acoustic album made Johnson approach his songwriting a bit differently and focus less on solos and his playing.
“This record is more song oriented,” he said. “It’s not really a lot of . . . there’s not really any bombastic guitar on it at all.”
Eric Johnson performs on Sunday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. at the Majestic Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 805-653-0721 or visit www.venturatheater.net.